West Lothian question: easy to ask, trickier to answer
The West Lothian question is easy to ask and almost impossible to answer. As posed in 1977 by Tam Dalyell, former MP for the Scottish constituency, it demands to know why MPs from (and now Wales and Northern Ireland) should be able to vote on issues such as health and education that affect England when English MPs have no power to vote on social and other policies that are devolved to the parliament in Edinburgh (and now also the assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast).
Because welfare issues are devolved, members of the Westminster parliament elected from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no power to decide how these policies should affect their constituents; ironically, they can vote only on welfare issues as they affect constituencies in England.
Scotland's vote against independence and promises of more devolved tax-raising powers have put the English question, as it is also called, firmly back on the political agenda. "The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer," said the prime minister, David Cameron, on Friday morning. "So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland."
English votes for English laws is a beguilingly attractive policy. Why shouldn't parliament decide that MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be barred from voting on – or perhaps even debating – policies that apply only to England?
The answer is that it would create two classes of MP and two classes of business. Ministers in the previous Labour government dismissed that proposal as a recipe for chaos. Where would you draw the line? A new bill might deal mainly with England and partly with Wales but also devolve certain powers to Scotland.
And the political ramifications would make it unworkable. Imagine that Labour wins the next general election with a small overall majority. Inevitably, that majority will include a large proportion of MPs from Scotland and Wales. Labour would have enough votes to pass legislation on reserved matters affecting the whole of the UK. But if it wanted to reform health provision or education in England, a Labour government would probably not be able to command a majority of English MPs.
These problems were recognised from a commission headed by Sir William McKay, a former clerk to the House of Commons. The it would be to be taken by parliament as a whole after English MPs, sitting in a grand committee, had made their views known.
But this sort of compromise was not likely to command political support and the less than three months ago.
The has just published a paper proposing what it calls a "quasi-federal union" of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This draws heavily on the McKay commission's proposals and tries, not very successfully, to circumvent its practical weaknesses.
So that leaves us with the option of a federal system – a united states of Britain. But, as Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London, : "There is no federal system in the world in which one unit represents more than 80% of the population … Federations in which the largest unit dominated, such as the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, have not been successful." He also points out that there would be little appetite for a new English parliament, separate from Westminster.
All this requires a great deal of thought. Do we need a written constitution – not the all-encompassing one but something setting out the division of powers and responsibilities within the UK? Do we need a constitutional convention, a body to consider these questions calmly and carefully? Or can we just muddle through?
One thing is clear – as the historian Lord Hennessy pointed out on the Today programme – these matters are not going to be resolved in time for the government to publish a draft bill at the beginning of next year, still less a bill on which the main parties are agreed. If the West Lothian question was that easy, someone would have come up with a "decisive answer" decades ago.